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Misfired: Kentucky Supreme Court rules University of Kentucky employee’s termination for vehicular firearm possession is contrary to public policy

In Mitchell vs. University of Kentucky, the Kentucky Supreme Court recently held that the University of Kentucky’s termination of an employee for keeping a firearm in his vehicle was contrary to fundamental and well-defined public policy. The decision reversed the lower courts’ rulings and allowed Mitchell to pursue his civil claim for wrongful termination in circuit court.

Background of Mitchell vs. University of Kentucky

In 2009, Michael Mitchell was employed at-will as an anesthesia technician at the University of Kentucky Chandler Medical Center, while also attending the university as a graduate student. In April 2009, Mitchell was reported by co-workers for having a firearm in his employee locker. The university’s police department questioned Mitchell and searched his locker, but found no weapons. Mitchell informed the officers that he had a valid concealed carry license and that he did have a firearm in his car, which was parked on university property at Commonwealth Stadium. Mitchell showed them the semi-automatic pistol he had stored in his vehicle, which both parties eventually agreed was found in his glove compartment. Police confiscated the weapon pending an investigation, and a week later the university terminated Mitchell’s employment for violation of its policy prohibiting possession of a deadly weapon on university property or while conducting university business. Ordinarily, an at-will employee can be fired for any reason or no reason at all, but there is a narrow exception to this rule if the termination is contrary to fundamental and well-defined public policy. The Kentucky Supreme Court found that Mitchell’s termination fell into this narrow exception because of specific language in the Kentucky Revised Statutes that disallowed any public or private organization from prohibiting a person from keeping a deadly weapon in the glove compartment of his or her vehicle, regardless of whether the person possessed a concealed carry license.

Employment and vehicular firearm possession

Since there was some dispute in the record over whether Mitchell’s firearm was found in the glove compartment or the vehicle’s center console, the court went further to find that additional language in the Kentucky Revised Statutes prohibited the termination of the holder of a concealed carry license for keeping a firearm anywhere in his or her vehicle. In making its finding, the court had to resolve a conflict between two competing statutory provisions: one allowed a university to control the possession of deadly weapons on its property and the other stated that no public or private organization could prohibit a holder of a concealed carry license from keeping a firearm in his or her vehicle.

The language of each section made it subject to the provisions of the other section. To resolve this conflict, the court looked to the legislative intent of the General Assembly. The court found statutory support for liberally construing language in favor of carrying out the constitutional right to bear arms for self-defense and for exempting vehicles from restrictions on deadly weapons. Having established that Mitchell was legally entitled to possess a firearm in his vehicle, the court further found that his termination violated the Kentucky Revised Statutes, which prohibits an employer from firing, demoting or punishing in any way an employee who legally possesses a firearm in his or her vehicle on the employer’s property.

How does this affect Indiana employers?

A similar Indiana statute enacted in 2010 prohibits most Indiana employers from enacting policies that ban guns in vehicles on company property. In Indiana, the gun must be stored out of sight in a locked vehicle, trunk or glove box. Some workplaces are exempt from the ban: schools (including colleges and universities), child care facilities, emergency shelters, homes for the developmentally disabled, prisons, federal buildings, homeland security sites and utilities.

Many opponents of the law have suggested that the list of exemptions is problematic and/or that the law may conflict with federal law in some areas. Public and private employers in Kentucky and Indiana should be aware that taking an adverse employment action against an employee for carrying a firearm in his or her car may make the employer vulnerable to a claim for wrongful termination, unless there is specific statutory language banning the possession of firearms on the employer’s property.

If you have questions about how this could affect your business, please contact the Labor and Employment Practice Group at Bingham Greenebaum Doll LLP.

 

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